The 2020 NBA season restart is just two weeks away.
Each team will have eight regular-season games to help finalize playoff seeding, with the first two games being held on July 30 as the Utah Jazz face off versus the New Orleans Pelicans, followed by the LA Clippers versus the Los Angeles Lakers. Players and teams will have roughly two weeks to secure their playoff seeds while knocking off any rust ahead of the postseason.
Here are 11 games we can’t wait to see when basketball returns.
New Orleans Pelicans vs. Utah Jazz
July 30, 6:30 p.m. ET | TNT
The Jazz have the utmost confidence that Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell can successfully coexist as franchise cornerstones, but will there be any residual tension from Gobert’s lack of concern for the novel coronavirus that preceded the news that he and Mitchell had both tested positive?
— Tim MacMahon
While the atmosphere in Orlando, Florida, won’t be the same as it would be at Staples Center, the intensity between these rivals figures to remain high in their final regular-season matchup. Though home-court advantage is no longer part of the equation, both teams will need to address chemistry as they ramp up for a long playoff run.
Can the Lakers replace Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo while finding the same consistency they had before the stoppage? How do the Clippers look at full strength, and how will Doc Rivers balance the minutes on a deep roster?
— Nick Friedell
The race for the West’s eighth seed could come down to the fresh-faced Grizzlies against the playoff-seasoned Trail Blazers, who were conference finalists last season. The point guard matchup — perennial All-Star Damian Lillard vs. Rookie of the Year front-runner Ja Morant — should be particularly fun. Lillard left the game because of a strained groin when these teams met on Feb. 12, and Morant’s 20 points and nine assists led the Grizzlies to a home victory.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is fully recovered from a knee injury that gave him some trouble prior to the suspension of the season. His first chance to knock off more than four months of rust will be against the Celtics, a potential playoff foe. With a 6½-game lead over the second-place Raptors, the Bucks can use the restart as a kind of preseason.
The Celtics don’t have that luxury, sitting just 2½ games in front of Miami as both teams try to avoid a showdown with the Bucks in the conference semifinals. Jayson Tatum scored 28 or more points in seven of his nine games following the All-Star break and will look to pick up where he left off.
This matchup should give us a look at Nuggets All-Star big man Nikola Jokic, who, before a positive COVID-19 diagnosis, had lost 40 pounds and transformed his body during the league’s hiatus. For Denver, it will be interesting to see what kind of lift young Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. gives a team in need of another push behind Jokic and Jamal Murray.
As for the Heat, this no-frills environment is made for Jimmy Butler to turn in some great performances. With Butler, Bam Adebayo and the playoff experience of trade-deadline addition Andre Iguodala, the Heat have the ability and the confidence to make waves in the East.
Milwaukee Bucks vs. Houston Rockets
Aug. 2, 8:30 p.m. ET | ABC
The passive-aggressive jabs exchanged by Houston’s James Harden and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo over the past year give this matchup a juicy subplot, but watching Harden attempt to figure out how to attack the league’s premier defense will be the main attraction.
Milwaukee’s plan for guarding Harden — having his primary defender straddle his left hip, taking away his step-back jumper and daring him to drive into the trees — has been successful. He has averaged 28 points (on 34.8% shooting) in the Rockets’ three losses to the Bucks over the past two seasons, but Harden has refused to give Milwaukee credit for containing him, saying he simply missed shots.
Houston Rockets vs. Los Angeles Lakers
Aug. 6, 9 p.m. ET | TNT
Could the Rockets pose a threat to the West favorite Lakers?
After acquiring Robert Covington at the trade deadline, Houston debuted its small-ball lineup in a win at Staples Center the previous time these teams met. The micro lineup started out strong, but fatigue began to wear on the Rockets before the season was halted. The Clippers exploited the height mismatch by beating Houston on the boards. Will Frank Vogel take his co-tenants’ lead and stick with his centers? Did the layoff give the Rockets enough time to recover?
Milwaukee Bucks vs. Toronto Raptors
Aug. 10, 6:30 p.m. ET | ESPN
Will this be an Eastern Conference finals preview for the second year in a row? The Raptors have kept on rolling without Kawhi Leonard, as Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry and a roster full of hard-nosed players get the chance to repeat as champs in this unique environment.
The Bucks are 6½ games clear of the Raptors in the East, but if Milwaukee wants to send an early message, it will get a chance to show that this year could be different. It will be interesting to see how hard coach Mike Budenholzer decides to push his veteran roster as this group starts what it hopes will be a long stay at Disney.
Toronto Raptors vs. Philadelphia 76ers
Aug. 12, 6:30 p.m. ET | ESPN
The Sixers come into the restart looking to script the kind of ending they expected they could achieve when the season started. Their play so far this season has been underwhelming, but Philadelphia heads into the bubble with a presumably healthy Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Coach Brett Brown has been playing Simmons “exclusively” at power forward in practices inside the bubble.
The Raptors come into the restart after some much-needed rest, presumably healthy and ready to prove they can make another title run without Kawhi Leonard. Not only is this a rematch of last season’s seven-game Eastern Conference semifinals, it’s a meeting of two teams that feel they have a lot to prove in Orlando.
Houston Rockets vs. Philadelphia 76ers
The Rockets felt comfortable committing to small ball because the list of NBA big men who are threats to dominate in the low post is short. Fortunately for the 76ers, Joel Embiid is at the top of that list. Can the perimeter-oriented Rockets capitalize on forcing him out of his comfort zone as a rim protector enough to make up for the punishment Embiid will dish out down low?
Embiid and Russell Westbrook, two of the league’s most entertaining personalities, also have a trash-talking history, so there is always potential for fireworks when they meet.
LA Clippers vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
This is each team’s final regular-season game, so it could have significant implications for the West playoff bracket. Paul George and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the marquee players who were traded for each other in a blockbuster deal last year, will face their former teams for the final time before the postseason. Then again, if the Clippers are locked into the No. 2 seed, it wouldn’t come as any surprise if they rest George and Kawhi Leonard in preparation for the playoffs.
One person to keep an eye on is Andre Roberson, as the Thunder guard participated in the team’s first practice in the bubble. For Roberson, it’s been 2½ years since he has played in an actual game, and he could find minutes in an evolving Oklahoma City rotation.